Plenty to learn for landowners about Minnesota’s buffer law

January 1, 2017

Minnesota’s Riparian Protection and Water Quality Practices law, the so-called buffer law, was enacted in June 2015. Affecting an estimated 110,000 acres of land, much of it farmland, the law represents one of the most sweeping environmental regulations directly affecting Minnesota’s farmers.

The law requires that landowners maintain buffers around certain waterways in the state. The buffers must consist of perennial vegetation that protects the water from runoff, stabilizes soils, shores and banks, and protects riparian corridors. Around “public waters,” landowners must maintain buffers with a 50-foot average width. Around public drainage systems, landowners must maintain buffers with a 16.5 foot minimum width. Buffers, or a permitted alternative, must be established by November 1, 2017 around public waters and by November 1, 2018 around public drainage systems.

Although some exceptions allow for recreational areas and allow for the temporary elimination of buffers for drainage tile work and reseeding, the exceptions are of relatively limited benefit for farmers. Ultimately, landowners are responsible for establishing and maintaining buffers around covered waters and are subject to monetary penalties for failing to comply. While certain government programs may provide financial assistance for landowners, the law does not provide for compensation or other reimbursement for tillable land taken out of production.

Landowners may be able to challenge the law in court on the basis that the buffer requirement amounts to a “taking” under the state and federal constitutions; if the law does constitute a taking, the government would be obligated to pay owners “just compensation” for the land affected. A court deciding such a lawsuit would look at several factors to determine whether a taking had occurred including the economic impact of the law on the landowner, how the law impacts a landowner’s expectations, and whether the regulation is generally applicable or only affects a few landowners. Until a landowner challenges it in court, however, the constitutional consequences and fallout of the buffer law remain to be seen.

Published in Soybean Business Magazine, January 1, 2017

This information is general in nature and should not be construed as tax or legal advice.